Disease expert Jeremy Farrar said the vaccine would not develop in time to prevent a new coronavirus that is raging in China and around the world.
In an interview with Der Spiegel , epidemiologist Jeremy Farrar talked about the alarming rapid spread of the new coronavirus, difficulty in vaccination and his biggest concern about the disease.
Over the past few years, he warned that in a time of globalization, an uncontrollable dangerous virus can spread around the world. Did his worst nightmare come true because of this new coronavirus?
- Certainly a nightmare took place in China . The virus is spreading much faster than the SARS virus. After only a few weeks, it infected more people around the world and caused more patients in China to die than what SARS caused in 9 months.
In Wuhan and parts of China, residents are living in nightmares. Hospitals are overloaded. Doctors and nurses must work beyond their limits. They are risking their lives to help their patients. We owe them all respect and thanks.
Is there a risk we will see scenes like horror movies in Germany and Europe?
I believe the worst can still be prevented. This will include making some tough decisions over the next few weeks. We must remember: For our immune system, this virus is a new opponent and very easily transmitted between people.
It can cause everything from very mild to very serious symptoms. The combination of these features makes this virus very difficult to control. This new disease will not disappear as quickly as SARS.
We must thank the drastic measures of the Chinese government. They have isolated more than 50 million people. But even this may not be enough to prevent the virus. However, anything that delays the spread outside of China, even for a few weeks, will make a huge difference.
What difficult decisions do you think are necessary?
Additional isolation in cities or individual areas or stopping of air, maritime and road transport activities. This can damage a lot of money.
During the SARS and H1N1 flu outbreaks, public transport was still operating normally, and the city wasn’t as blockaded as it is in China. Similar draconian measures were taken to prevent Spanish flu between 1918 and 1920 when up to 50 million people died.
Is it necessary to isolate cities like Munich or Paris?
I doubt residents of major Western cities will be subject to blockade in the long run. Such austerity measures will cause great disruption to the community and society. If the worst case actually happens, people will probably be required to stay home on a voluntary basis. But for such voluntary measures to be effective, it is important that politicians and public health experts help people understand by communicating openly, honestly and transparently.
Do you personally fear a pandemic could occur?
I have been working with diseases like bird flu, dengue fever and Ebola for over 20 years. You are not afraid of what you understand. Obviously, I am worried.
But this is the time to calm down and act rationally. Fear will not save us.
In the world, where is the decisive place in determining whether the Covid-19 virus is out of control? Do developing countries or emerging countries have weak health systems?
This is what the World Health Organization (WHO) worries. A bad situation like in Wuhan will put great pressure even on countries with very good health systems like in Germany or Singapore , especially in the winter.
But in low-resource countries like Bangladesh, Venezuela or some countries in Africa, a small epidemic will have serious consequences. That’s why we have to help poor countries with everything they need: protective equipment, testing equipment, medicines and medical advice.
What is the first sign that the situation around the world is out of control?
I think the most important thing to note in the next two or three weeks is if we begin to see a spread in communities outside of China.
An infected Korean patient came to Thailand but did not travel to China or contact anyone from China. This is very worrying.
Chinese people claim that the Chinese government started responding to Covid-19 too late. What was wrong?
I think this is overdoing. Don’t forget that the epidemic started slowly and, above all, it started before the Lunar New Year. Imagine a pandemic beginning in your holiday season. Some people have strange pneumonia in a number of different hospitals. Do you think the authorities will immediately declare an emergency?
I think criticism is easy. But now is not the right time for this. We must unite, not divide and blame. We must act now!
The world is lacking of protective gear. How can factories speed up production?
Lots of protective equipment made in China. Now, it is clear how vulnerable the world is to so many important commodities originating from just one country. What would happen to the global economy if the epidemic lasted more than a few months in China and around the world? We do not know.
An emergency in China can even harm our health if it affects the production of drugs and vaccines. If the virus speeds up the spread outside of China, the strict quarantine measures that are in place can be stopped. At that time, we will enter a new phase.
Can developing a vaccine quickly help stop the spread of the virus?
No, the vaccine won’t show up in time. The Alliance for Disease Prevention Initiatives (CEPI), an international organization funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research and the Wellcome Trust, among others, is promoting vaccine development. But it will still take at least 6 months to do this.
In fact, we won’t get the vaccine before the end of this year or in a year, and this is a record short period. Vaccines are for healthy people. You must be absolutely sure that it is safe. If we’re unlucky, we won’t be able to develop a vaccine at all.
So, why does the pharmaceutical industry have such great efforts?
Vaccines are important in cases where the Covid-19 virus does not disappear like SARS but persists and becomes a constant threat as the influenza virus. It is even possible that Covid-19 does not appear as seasonal as the flu but will operate throughout the year.
Can we hope that antiviral drugs can help people who are seriously ill?
Many groups are studying this under a lot of pressure. The first clinical trial with anti-HIV drugs was started in Wuhan in mid-January and so far, about 200 patients have participated in the study. This week, another trial started with a drug called remdesivir. Other substances are also being tested in the laboratory to see if they can fight this virus. Completely new drugs have also started to be developed.
We need all this because so far, we have nothing proven to be against Covid-19. Doctors can only relieve the symptoms of disease and provide special care for critically ill patients.
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